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Tim Blair

Jan 4, 2010

Blair fails Philosophy of Science 101

Guest post by Michael Slezak Tim Blair's

Guest post by Michael Slezak

Tim Blair’s most recent attack on reason came in the form of a post that argues that we shouldn’t appeal to scientific consensus when devising policy. Behind Blair’s rhetoric is a very common argument that, while faulty, is surprisingly powerful. Debunking it is worthwhile, especially when this faulty logic is used to justify doing nothing about climate change.

Blair lists a bunch of things that have been mislabeled as science (like Marx’s social theory) and a bunch of things that scientists have said that have been proven to be wrong. In each of these cases, the arguments that relied on the so-called “science” were bad. Blair concludes that appealing to science, in general, is therefore a rhetorical trick that ought to be avoided.

Science is a powerful word, now more so than ever, which is why it’s so often invoked by non-scientists (Engels, Kevin Rudd, Al Gore, Malcolm Turnbull, Penny Wong, angry emailers) seeking authority. Mention “science” and you’ve won. Which might explain Penny Wong’s recent comment on The 7.30 Report:

“I looked to where the weight of the science is, where the consensus science is, and I look to the fact that our own scientific institutions in Australia, the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the international scientific community.”

How could one dare oppose someone so awesome that they can cite science four times in a single sentence, even if that sentence is scientifically short on verbs in relation to nouns?

As a champion of science and evidence-based policy, you might be surprised to hear me agree with two of Blair’s supposedly anti-science premises.

  1. Our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong.
  2. You shouldn’t believe scientists.

Let me start with the second issue. Blair takes great pleasure in making fun of the supposedly silly things that scientists have said. (He’s running a series of posts about it.) Among the list are scientists saying quirky things that nobody else has ever agreed with as well as the results of studies that were unable to be confirmed.

Blair is exactly right that it would have been a mistake to make policy based on the advice of these quirky scientists or studies that appeared to reveal something that was never confirmed.

Nevertheless, Wong is expressing the right attitude: policy should be based on scientific consensus. Scientific knowledge is not made up of quirky scientists and lone studies, it is made up of broad consensus.

So, while you shouldn’t believe scientists, but you should believe science. And the scientific consensus around climate change is very clear.

Ok, but none of that seems to matter if we accept the other premise above, right? If our current scientific theories are wrong, then why should we make policy based on them?

Firstly, it’s true: our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong. If you look through history, all of our most successful, most beautiful and most explanatory theories have been wrong. Based on that evidence, we’d be mad to think our current theories are right. Philosophers of science call this argument the Pessimistic Meta-Induction. (Comedian Dara O’Briain makes some funny jokes about misuses of this form of reasoning.)

The question is, what follows from the Pessimistic Meta-Induction? If our theories are false, should we ignore them?

The answer is a clear “No”. If you look through the history of science, successful scientific theories that garnered consensus yielded good advice. Although Newtonian mechanics is wrong, it still yields the right advice for any situation you’re likely to come across.

Newtonian mechanics will tell you that if you want your car to go faster, you should make it less heavy. Just because the theory behind that advice turned out to be wrong, doesn’t mean the advice was wrong.

Similarly, even if climate science turns out to be inaccurate in some way, the advice it is giving us is clear. Cutting emissions is essential for stopping global warming.

So, the two premises I originally agreed to can now be appended:

  1. Our current scientific theories are almost certainly wrong, but you should do what they say anyway.
  2. You shouldn’t believe scientists, you should believe science.

Neither of these two observations about science form a sound basis for arguments against acting according to our best scientific theories. Anyone who tells you otherwise is pushing a dangerous agenda.

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67 comments

67 thoughts on “Blair fails Philosophy of Science 101

  1. Michael Slezak

    Yes, and in the cases where the dissenters turned out to be doing the best science, it was because consensus formed around their view.

  2. confessions

    Actually that’s not true. In many fields of scientific research dissenters mean nothing if their research cannot be replicated in other settings and produce similar findings. It ain’t called a consensus for nothing.

  3. Skepticus Autartikus

    Actually, the best science always take place among the dissenters, not the journeymen. The point of consensus is to provide a clergy to evangelize and recruit kids into the flock.

  4. AR

    PB – I tend to 2Tans view that trolls aren’t even interested in whether a thread is reasonable or correct but that they psyche is so unhealthy that they just want to be mean and break of kiddies toys. Not even to steal them just ruin them

  5. PeeBee

    2Tanners @62

    Good point about creationists and denialists, they both operate in similar manner. I am not sure about why they bother to post though.

    My take is that both groups believe that they are right, and the reason they are right is because…. They just are. Regardless of all the evidence to the contrary they doggedly hold onto their beliefs.

    I also note they have an evangelical desire to prove everyone else wrong, however logic and evidence are not on their side. They often unwittingly leave themselves open to criticism when they grab any evidence to support their argument (for example ‘those emails’). When this evidence is shown to be nonsense, they NEVER concede, but slip over to another argument.

    They are generally frustrated by this battering to their belief systems, and eventually resort to personal attacks (the last argument of a moron).

    Eventually, they give up and leave, gaining little from the whole process.

  6. 2 tanners

    Way way back in pre-internet days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and we still thought Fidonet stood a chance, the bulletin boards (predecessors to blogs, for the young ‘uns) were infested by trolls, usually of a creationist stripe. (Ironically, one of today’s greatest denialists was then a creationism debunking hero, are your listening Dr P?).

    We discovered that one troll consumed the productive output of approximately 5 good contributors or 13 outstanding contributors, which of course was their objective. The talking points were a tactic, not a belief. The true belief was, and is, that if you are idiots enought to spend your time and efforts attacking straw men you will not be writing to Rudd and others to demand proper action.

    Here is my proposition. Ignore Shabs and his ilk. They are beneath you. Instead, every time they post, write an email to Rudd or Wong or Garrett or your local member demanding action and then, back here respond to Shabs by saying “Your points are crap. I have written to X requesting proper response to the climate crisis”.

    We KNOW Rudd is poll and response driven – don’t waste your arguments, use them! Ensure that Shabs knows that each post he makes results in 5 emails to the Government demanding that they improve. One way or another we will get a good response – he will shut up or they will shape up.

    BTW, Shabs, i have just written to Rudd pointing out the political problems with his current approach and suggesting that he consider a deal with the Greens. thank you for prompting me to do this. And feel free to write to Abbott suggesting he oppose it.

  7. John

    I wouldn’t worry Dewgong, he’s just cementing himself as a denialist.

    I.E. “one who is in denial.”

    Couchy: Yes, he has the worldview of Krusty the Clown.

    Here is an interesting post that Shabs can deny as well: http://www.tnr.com/blog/the-vine/why-yes-it-chilly-out-right-now

  8. couchy

    Fair point Dave C @33 and I agree 100% Bertus @ 44 that this is version 2.0 of the Tobacco coverups. The corporations – the real financial beneficiaries of this “debate” – have learnt well from the lessons of the past and seem primed to drag this out for as long as possible.

    I do have a good chuckle though every time I see a deniosaur talking about rich scientists fraudulently lining their pockets with climate change research money – presumably laughing all the way to the bank with those Ferrari driving teachers and nurses.

  9. Dewgong

    Shabadoo, if you only bothered to watch the first 5 minutes then you’re not going to learn much, you are basically sticking your head in the sand and saying “not listening, not listening”. Go back and watch the full thing.

    And as for your other points, all of them are addressed in his other videos on Climate change, particularly, the one following that one.

  10. Catsidhe

    John, if I’m a petulant child because I can’t choose how I light my home, I presume you’re OK with Rudd’s Great Firewall?

    Ah, Shabadoo strikes back with an Epic Logic Fail Howto.

    IF (Shabadoo = Petulant) THEN (John = Happy with the Great Firewall)
    Obviously expecting that, because he’s obviously not a petulant child (no matter how much he might act like one), then the consequence must follow, and if the consequence is false, then the thesis must be false also.

    Which might be true if there was the slightest logical connection between the two. As it is, Shab’s syllogism is exactly equivalent to “IF dogs have four legs, THEN apples are blue”. It’s a completely disjointed non sequitur, which only goes to demonstrate that Shabadoo really cannot show the logical reasoning of an eight-year old.

  11. PeeBee

    Shabs, before slipping to the ‘bully editors’ and ‘evading FOI requests’ arguments, can you show good judgement (unlike morons) and concede that the ‘trick’ and ‘hide the decline’ attacks were without foundation?

    And I betcha you believe in God… you know like Tony Abbott.

  12. John

    “John, if I’m a petulant child because I can’t choose how I light my home, I presume you’re OK with Rudd’s Great Firewall?”

    Maybe you should have a look around and realise how many freedoms you don’t have. That you’re waging a war on science based on the fact that you can’t get the lightbulb you want (and maybe you don’t want it, maybe you just want the choice to buy it or not) really says a lot.

    Maybe you can light it with fire and spew Co2 into the air and send pictures to Tim Blair and he can post them and you can all laugh at how clever you are and really? It’s been the hottest decade on record? Well, surely all those scientists must be in collusion to bring about communism…

  13. Shabadoo

    Dewgong, I’ve just gone through the first five minutes of that video: Move along, nothing to see here, as it were, as if it were all over two easily explained e-mails. (Ooooh, the narrator uses “McExperts”! How very clever; putting the Mc prefix on any word is clearly like making the villain a smoker in the movies. We know they’re wrong, no need to think).

    Also, it’s full of rhetorical tricks … “whether the world has been warming since the 1970s, or if CO2 is a greenhouse gas” … spot the trick?

    Oddly the video does not discuss attempts to bully editors, evade FOI requests, and so on. And I note you all are quite silent on that as well.

  14. Dewgong

    bah, I guess not

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7nnVQ2fROOg

    If you want those emails explained.

  15. Dewgong

    Shabadoo, this man explains it better than I do, along with the rest of his videos. I know it’s probably 180 degrees to everything you’ve ever been fed about AGW, but try to watch with an open mind, Ok? Watch his other vids on Climate change too if you want a different perspective.

    (dunno if the embedd worked or not)

  16. confessions

    [In any case, again, one time period out of a hundred years, when the climate is so much older, is hardly a basis for re-engineering the economy.]

    One time period? Australian data shows a consistent temperature rising over decades, not just “one time period”. The humour in your stubborn refusal to accept what is plainly obvious to everyone else is that if the BoM’s Annual Climate Statement had shown a marked cooling, there would be no mention of hacked emails, time periods and so on, would there shabs?

    As for Earth Hour, monkeywrench is taking the mickey out of the passive-agressive wonderment shown by denialists whenever climate change activism and advocacy get national attention.

  17. PeeBee

    Shas

    Definition of moron: ‘a person who is notably stupid or lacking in good judgment’.

    I think that is a good description and I could have used it. Thanks for the suggestion.

    And which belief without evidence you also believe in?